His actions stole her heart’s desire and gave their relationship a court-mandated five-year time-out. What didn’t fall apart that night fell apart in the intervening years.
Now, on a self-imposed exile to Madeline Island—one of the Apostle Islands of Lake Superior—Emmalyn starts rehabbing an old hunting cottage they’d purchased when life made sense. Restoring it may put a roof over her head, but a home needs more than a roof and walls, just as a marriage needs more than vows and a license. With only a handful of months before her husband is released,
Emmalyn must figure out if and how they can ever be a couple again. And his silence isn’t helping.
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)|
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As Waters Gone By
By Cynthia Ruchti
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2015 Cynthia Ruchti
All rights reserved.
Too far to swim.
The moat-like stretch of Lake Superior glinted in the October sun as if the waves were rows of razor wire.
Once her feet hit the island in the near distance, the floating drawbridge ferry drawn up for the night, the shore of Madeline Island would form the walls of her existence.
Max talked about the concrete walls of his prison as if the confines protected him from the outside world. Was it too much to hope sand and rocks and deep water would do the same for her?
Did I do the right thing, Max?
One last ferry for the day. She'd missed the next to the last. Three minutes late. Only three minutes. The sluggish gas pump could be blamed. Or her failure to check the website for the ferry's off-season hours. Emmalyn Ross had one more chance before dark, or she'd be forced to stay in Bayfield overnight, forced to talk to people, risk having to explain what she was doing there and why she was alone.
Five years ago, she'd been three minutes late getting to Max's desperate voice mail message. "Emi, I'm in trouble. Can you come get me?" His smudged words stuck like indelible mascara smears. She hadn't noticed the message until he'd already left the restaurant-slash-tavern, until he'd already pushed the accelerator toward their incomprehensible future.
A ferry attendant tapped on the car window. Emmalyn fumbled for the button to lower it. The rear window responded. Wrong button. She raised the rear window and lowered the driver's.
"Missed this one." The attendant, a middle-aged woman with a portable credit card reader in hand, gave Emmalyn the impression she was a retired teacher in a second career.
"I see that." Emmalyn looked past the attendant at the maze of orange cones—any empty maze now—where vehicles must have waited for the ferry she was supposed to have taken.
"There's another." The attendant pointed to the schedule in her hand. "Last one of the day. Wanna pay now? You can do that."
Why would Emmalyn hesitate?
"Unless," the attendant added, "you think you might change your mind."
The attendant's eyebrows registered surprise at the velocity of those two words.
Emmalyn smiled a third-grade-picture-day smile that seemed normal at the start but stretched her lips too taut. "Yes, thank you. I'll purchase my ticket now." She had forty-five minutes or more to kill. Paying ahead would use up—
Three of them.
Across the water lay a room at—she checked the computer printout on the passenger seat—The Wild Iris Inn. When the attendant swiped her credit card, Emmalyn felt the now familiar reflex. The swipe sounded like the slash of a knife. It sliced a deeper gash in resources that at the peak of her career, before The Unraveling, could have borne a thousand swipes without a conscious thought.
The house in Lexington—people always assumed Kentucky, not Minnesota—emptied quickly once she'd crunched numbers to a fine dust. Losing Max's income, then losing hers when the economy decided chefs in high-end restaurants were expendable, and the slow demise of her catering venture ...
"Thank you." She slid her credit card and the receipt into her purse and followed the attendant's gestures for exiting the parking lot.
Some towns chart well on graph paper. Nice, even streets. Identically sized blocks of buildings. Every street running either parallel to or perpendicular to the others. Not Bayfield, Wisconsin. It had more curiosity going for it than just its location on the northernmost point of the state, along the largest body of fresh-water in the world, within sight of the geographic and geologic curiosity of the Apostle Islands.
Some streets wandered. A handful of them played by the rules. The rest curved and sauntered and climbed at steep angles—posing threats to weak clutches and tires on ice—or meandered until they ended abruptly at the water's edge. The marina. The city park. The ferry line.
Emmalyn resisted the lure of an organic coffee shop and the gift shops along Rittenhouse Avenue. She chose a wandering street. Seemed fitting. Isn't that what the homeless do? Wander?
At the elbow of the backstreet she'd chosen, she pulled her Prius to the curb beside a junkyard. No, a park. Both.
Several decrepit boats sat at odd angles, paint worn away to its gray roots, boards missing, jagged holes in the hull, decks unsafe for their intended purposes. Shipwrecks. Emmalyn followed the path that wove among them. Hand-carved benches invited her to stop and take in the history of ships dragged from—or retired from—the waters a few feet away, and the well-landscaped garden tucked around the unseaworthy vessels.
The deeper into the park she walked, the tighter her jaw tensed. "You don't make gardens out of life's shipwrecks."
A tenacious late-blooming rose—an intense fuchsia color—nodded toward her. She ignored it, driving her hands deep into the pockets of her jacket.
"Not from shipwrecks. I ought to know."
Emmalyn retraced her steps to the car. It held no appeal. She'd sat in the driver's seat for six hours getting this far north, this far away from The Town That Knew Too Much. Half a block away, a massive boat—would it qualify as a yacht?—was being cinched onto a trailer hooked to a heavy-duty pickup. The boat dwarfed the truck so profoundly, it reminded Emmalyn of the tugboat pulling a cruise ship in a children's book among those she'd collected. The lower two-thirds of the hull dripped water, like a fish held aloft by a proud fisherman.
The book, buried now under other useless stuff in the storage unit, had probably seen its last peek at daylight. House. Life. Career. Hope of children. Gone. Marriage? Yet to be determined. What hadn't she and Max messed up?
The yacht, following obediently behind the truck, headed for winter quarters. A season of inactivity. A season. Not a lifetime.
A ripple of irony's laughter coursed through her. She was jealous of a boat's hopes for the future.
Gravel crunched beneath her feet as she crossed to a grassy area near the marina. She noted the gazebo first, then the playground beyond it. Of course. A playground. Pink noise—sweeter than white noise—lured her to the water's edge. Waves against rocks. Startlingly clear water, burbling in pockets between the bowling ball–sized boulders lining this portion of the shoreline. Round and oval pebbles a hundred yards closer to the center of town. Sand beach somewhere. Rugged cliffs only a mile away. Such a changeable shoreline.
Madeline Island stretched long and low in the distance. A twenty-minute ferry ride, if she remembered correctly. Against the expanse of green forest fancied up with the yellows, reds, and oranges of a north woods autumn, a spackling of white marked the landing spot in the village of LaPointe, the island's only civilization center. A room waited for her not far from the landing. The real adventure wouldn't begin until morning when it was light enough to survey the mess Max had gotten her into.
Her wedding ring felt tight on her finger. The pretzels. Too much salt. In her thirties, salt hadn't bothered her like this. When she hit forty ...
The day was grayer than she'd hoped. They all were. Scudding clouds made the marine blue shrink-wrap on the dry-docked boats all the brighter. Like a shower cap for watercraft, the plastic hugged the forms, protecting them from the winter too quickly approaching. Within a couple of months, the ferry would be retired, too, thwarted by ice several feet thick, she'd heard.
A shiver wiggled its way north from her toes.
She knew cold. She knew cold and lonely. Now she'd know cold, lonely, and stranded.
She wandered past the gazebo, stirred by a sound stronger than waves. Laughter. Children's laughter.
Two boys, maybe four and five, chased each other down the spiral slide, giggling when they landed on top of one another at the slide's end. A woman tough enough to be their mother warned them to leave space between them—one at a time—or someone would get hurt.
The mother stood at an odd angle, like a runway model thrusting her hip to the side. She wore a pink and purple little one on that hip and a striped shirt stretched over the baby Emmalyn guessed to be no more than two months away from making its appearance.
Bayfield was not the place to come.
Too much laughter.
She returned the young mom's wave but angled herself toward the water again, focusing on the lapping water, the ceiling of dryer lint clouds, the curve of the harbor to her left. Motionless masts hid her view of the ferry dock.
How much time did she have left to kill?
According to Max's sentencing, another eight months.
* * *
Five years, Max?
Emmalyn remembered chanting the question so often after he went to prison, it wore a divot in her vocal cords.
"My lawyer warned me it could be worse." Max's voice—emotionless—had used my and me as if the sentence affected only him.
"What am I supposed to do?"
"What do you mean?" He'd barely paused. Barely paused. "Go on with your life."
Who had he turned into? This wasn't the Max she'd lain next to every night, his fingers tracing the curve of her arm until she fell asleep, the Max who made other women jealous for how good Emmalyn had it. The Max who could have taught seminars on how to treat a woman ... before.
The phone connection from prison had crackled in her ear while she tried to cobble together an answer to his, "What do you mean? Go on with your life."
Go on? Incredulity was invented for moments like those.
She'd try. Contrary to her mother's opinion, she was no wimp. But Max had to know how ridiculous his words sounded. This isn't how life was supposed to turn out.
When the "go on" conversation faded—unresolved and hollow—Emmalyn told herself, for the first time ever, that she was grateful not to be pregnant. Going on alone would be hard enough.
More than one doctor informed her the sensations she'd felt were emotional, not physical. Women can't feel a womb shrinking. Emmalyn swore she could. It shrank by half the night Max told her to go on with her life.
* * *
A grocery store's produce mister rained harder than the light drizzle that started. But Emmalyn left the water's edge and headed back to her car. The ferry ticket lady suggested she get her vehicle in line a good ten minutes before departure. That still left a vacuum of an additional ten minutes.
The young mom from the playground herded her littles into a rust-bucket minivan parked a half block in front of the Prius. A man exited the driver's side, his neck hunched against the drizzle, and loaded the stroller into the back. He'd been there all along? Sitting in the van rather than engaging with the kids' play? Missing the laughter?
His mother didn't raise him right.
Not catching the next-to-the-last ferry made her regret having stopped at the orchard for a small bag of apples before finding her way to the landing earlier. She forgave herself for that when her stomach complained it hadn't been fed for hours, as insistent as a terrier nudging his stainless steel bowl across the kitchen floor in a not-so-subtle hint.
She reached for a Cortland in the bag on the passenger seat, polished it on her jeans, and bit through the taut red skin. If she chewed slowly, she could fill the time gap without rousing a memory or a longing.
As if they ever napped.
She closed her eyes and groaned with brief pleasure. The apple's flesh was sweet yet tart, juicy. A good year for Cortlands. Max preferred Jonagolds. She'd bought only Cortlands since he left.
Left? Since he was taken away.
The orchard sales person must have thought it strange Emmalyn stood so long staring at the bin of Jonagolds. The teen had asked, "Want a sample?"
Emmalyn had shaken her head no.
"Would you like me to carry them to the checkout for you? Five pounds? Ten pounds?"
Another head shake.
"Jonagolds are more versatile than either the Jonathan or the Golden Delicious from which they're derived. Are you looking for an eating apple, pie apple, making applesauce ...?"
Smooth sales pitch. No to all of the above. "I'll take a bag of Cortlands," she'd said, pointing two bins to her right without losing her eye lock with the Jonagolds. "Five pounds. For now. I'm ... I'm moving to the area."
"Welcome. You just missed Apple Festival. It gets a little crazy around here, but a lot of fun."
"Not much of a fun-seeker."
That sounded pathetic. True, but pathetic. One of these days, she'd fix that. As soon as she figured out how.
She held the apple in her teeth and put the car into DRIVE. Twelve minutes early was better than three minutes late for the last ferry of the day.
* * *
Almost ten years ago, she would have tugged on Max's sleeve, coaxing him to let her weave among the fabric threads of this town. He'd accompany her through the first four or five specialty shops before she noticed that look in his eyes—pained patience—and suggest he wait for her at the coffee shop. Had he brought a book? He'd be fine if it took her another hour to see more, to ooh and aah over more artwork, more history, more children's books they didn't need yet.
And remarkably, he would be fine. Genuinely. A coffee shop armchair, a strong African brew, and uninterrupted time in a biography or legal thriller—ironic now—seemed a gift to him, not a concession to his wife's lack of shopping fatigue. One of the things she'd appreciated about Max. At her side, sharing the experience for a while, then content for them to be engaged in their own interests. Could they ever gain that back? So much distance between them, not to mention the razor wire.
She could almost see him standing at the counter in the coffee shop she passed on her way down Rittenhouse Avenue toward Front Street and the ferry landing. He'd gaze up at the chalkboard of choices as if they mattered. He always ordered the tallest and strongest they had.
She turned left at the L in the road that swung past the public pier, Apostle Islands excursion launch, and the lighthouse shop. Ahead to her right, in the spaces between harborside buildings, she could see glimpses of the lumbering ferry approaching with its load of vehicles returning from the island. Tourists done exploring the island for the day? Mainland residents finished with their workday on Madeline or Madeline residents heading toward their evening shifts on the mainland?
She'd paid for a single round-trip ticket. But at those prices, she'd have to soon check into a resident discount. Was that possible? She doubted the few stores on Madeline Island could provide the furnishings she'd need to change Max's hunting cottage into what would have to pass for a home. If she were frugal, she could survive on what the court costs and restitution hadn't taken, and the abysmal proceeds from the sale of the Lexington house. For a while longer, anyway. But the ferry fee for everything but the barest minimum of supplies—from what she'd heard—could be an uncomfortable drain.
Her cell phone rang. How bizarre would it be if Max's first call from prison in nearly four years came just as she left everything about their old life behind?
The phone slithered out of her hands and dropped between the seats before she could answer it. She fumbled for it, found it, and answered before the call could switch to voice mail.
"Emmalyn Victoria Walker! Where are you?"
"It's Ross, Mother. You were there at the wedding." Emmalyn restarted the engine and turned on the air conditioning. October, but the car had grown stuffy in the last ten seconds.
"You didn't smart-mouth like that when you were younger."
Saved it all up, Mom. Saved it all up. "Did you want something?"
"Yes! I want to know where in the continental United States you are, since you're not at home. I checked."
"The house sold."
The gasp Emmalyn heard was likely accompanied by her mother's hand slapped to her chest to cover the stab wound. "You didn't tell me!"
"I didn't tell anyone else."
"Obviously. We've been talking about what to do with you."
Excerpted from As Waters Gone By by Cynthia Ruchti. Copyright © 2015 Cynthia Ruchti. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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